From time to time, the Economist, to which I subscribe, pesters me to take an online survey, and sometimes I do (particularly if I’m on a boring telecon). This week I did one that veered into issues of design—there was one question that showed interiors of four sample apartments and asked which one I’d pick for a rental. Then there was a question that I thought was fairly astounding: What do you think is the Twentieth Century’s most iconic piece of design; write in your answer and an explanation. [Updated: I added my candidate, with a picture. One commenter agreed.]

Superboreen was the first to suggest what I answered: The electric guitar in general, the Fender electric guitar in particular, and especially the Fender Stratocaster.

Fender Stratocasters and a Telecaster

Those are Stratocasters above and below, with a Telecaster in the middle. On the bottom is the “Jeff Beck signature” model.

The electric guitar first appeared in recorded music in 1938 and by the middle of the century had be come the dominant instrumental timbre in most of the world’s most popular music in general, and Rock & Roll in particular. The design is beautiful, functional, and flexible, and that shape has come to stand for many things in many minds, among them, Rock & Roll itself. Which is what I call “iconic”.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Colin Prince (May 09 2007, at 11:49)

The Coca-Cola contour bottle came to mind first. It's iconic in every continent. Bleh, too bad. I'm not a fan of the sugar water industry.



From: walter (May 09 2007, at 12:13)

Well two that i would pick: iPod(2001) and the Sapper Espresso maker '78:


From: Josh (May 09 2007, at 12:17)

An impossible question but how about Harry Beck's London Underground Map?


From: Toby (May 09 2007, at 12:48)

The mushroom cloud.


From: Steve D (May 09 2007, at 13:01)

McDonald's golden arches.

Pretty much universally recognized and definitely conjures up a lot of interesting perspectives...


From: andyc (May 09 2007, at 13:06)

I vote for the swastika, to this day the most hated and feared of all symbols by a huge sector of the population.


From: Pete Lacey (May 09 2007, at 13:17)

The skyscraper. In particular the Empire State Building (or its sexier sister, the Chrysler Building).

Impossible during any other century before the 20th (late 19th). A symbol of progress, wealth, ambition, and maybe hubris. A wonder even to urbanites. Many are beautiful, all are impressive. Every city worthy of the name has to have one, whether it makes sense or not (why are there skyscrapers in Kansas City?). An icon so powerful that they act as targets for nut jobs when striking out against the West.


From: Rob Breidecker (May 09 2007, at 13:40)

The Empire State Building


From: Matt Brubeck (May 09 2007, at 14:01)

I also thought of the Empire State Building (1931), and also the Golden Gate Bridge (1937). Or maybe the US dollar bill (current design dates to the 1920s). I guess my view of twentieth-century design is rather US-centric.


From: Kevin H (May 09 2007, at 14:07)

Picking ONE is so hard it becomes silly. But just to toss one out that came to mind:


From: Josh (May 09 2007, at 15:11)

Sigh, andyc is probably right. It is the single piece of iconic design that continues to provoke the strongest of reactions. But Tim I worry. Even discussing such iconography risks provoking the kind of unpleasant reactions that stopped you adding comments here for so long... (just ask Bryan Ferry who was a little injudicious recently but yes, the swastika is surely the most iconic piece of design from the last century.


From: JB (May 09 2007, at 15:12)

The AK-47, especially its silhouette. Its an icon that expresses all the key themes of the 20th century: violence, terror, the more-powerful *fear* of imminent violence or terror (one could argue that the AK-47s recognizable 'AK-47-ness' is a more potent weapon than its bullet-shooting capability in many situations), the tension between The West and its shifting enemies. Is there any more immediately usable sign in fiction or news reportage that a combatant represents an enemy of The West than the AK-47? The only other signs with pan-cultural power to invoke such a strong and complicated set of ideas that I can think of are religious icons, certainly not designed products. Even the way its manufactured, the story of its origins, and the intellectual property issues around it add to its position as a 20th century design icon. It's in the freakin' Coat of Arms of Mozambique! Has any other branded product ever achieved sovereign-nation-coat-of-arms status? Read the wikipedia page, its fascinating:


From: James Brunskill (May 09 2007, at 16:46)

I'm looking forward to hearing what you picked Tim.

Whenever I hear about surveys I always wonder how the results would be different if those being surveyed were different. For example I wonder what kind of answer you would get if you asked this question to say taxi drivers in India, instead of Economist subscribers?

Would they pick something different? I'm thinking they probably would...


From: Roberto Chinnici (May 09 2007, at 18:14)

Definitely not an easy question to answer! After much pondering, I vote for the Volkswagen Beetle (

Unquestionably iconic, its design, purpose and materials are all quintessentially 20th century. It successfully bridged the pre- and post-war eras, transcending its origin in totalitarian visions of mass production to come to define personal freedom for a generation.

And no, I've never owned (or driven) one.


From: Mark (May 09 2007, at 18:53)

The Apollo Lunar Module (lunar lander).

It's a piece of design (unlike mushroom clouds) that reflects one of a handful of things, perhaps the one thing, that will be remembered about our century in a span of time from now equal to the span of time between now and the time of the Iliad.

As design, it was pure form follows function, made of extremely thin materials, it would have crumpled under earth gravity.


From: Janne (May 09 2007, at 19:12)

First, I disagree completely about the swastika. In much of the world - India, Asia - the first and still only meaning is "holy place", and is in common use on everything from maps (where it is used to mark the site of a temple or shrine) to personal good-luck amulets. It simply doesn't have an association with evil for most people outside Europe and the US.

The question is way overbroad, but I nominate the "aircraft" symbol, used as an iconic representation - one variant here:

To me, that sign neatly illustrates the technical and communications advances we've had, as well as the kind of clean and bare aesthetic which in one for or another has heavily influenced this past century, both literally and by analogy.


From: David Megginson (May 09 2007, at 19:42)

The telephone (both fixed and mobile) — because of its ubiquity and constantly-changing design, it's the best way of dating a scene in a television show or movie. Reruns of Seinfeld episodes don't look particularly out of date, for example, until you see Jerry's cordless phone with the huge antenna.


From: Mark Baker (May 09 2007, at 19:57)

My vote's for the Web. It encompasses so many of the right design decisions that many systems before it botched, e.g. breakable links & stateless message exchanges.


From: pwb (May 09 2007, at 20:26)

Seconding M. David: the jet airplane. If I had to pick one, the 747. Not only a beautiful aesthetic but a technological marvel and the primary factor in mixing up our global community.


From: Brent Rockwood (May 09 2007, at 20:39)

For what it's worth, the swastika is not a piece of 20'th century design at all, and has been found on artifacts going back to the 5'th millennium BC.


From: suthsc (May 09 2007, at 21:02)

I think Mark is on the hot path, though I think he missed by a small margin. The obvious iconic design is the one expressed to communicate with other species (as yet unknown) attached to the golden record cover ( on the object furthest from all other man made objects.


From: Dave Smith (May 10 2007, at 00:39)

My first two thoughts were the Empire State Building (minus King Kong), and the Golden Gate Bridge.


From: Pascal Harris (May 10 2007, at 01:46)

The Volkswagen Beetle would be my number one choice, but there are so many examples of great 20th Century design. The Coke Bottle, of course, is another example. The DeHavilland Comet (the first Jet airliner). Concorde. The Helvetica typeface. The London Underground map. And the original Apple Macintosh. The Sony Walkman. And how about the sadly forgotten Philips Roller stereo?


From: Bob DuCharme (May 10 2007, at 07:16)

I'll be more specific than David M: the Western Electric Princess Phone was a collaboration between Bell Labs and one of the great designers of the 20th century.

As the telecommunications industry continues to fall over each other trying to create sleeker, more attractive telephones, it's difficult to believe that the quintessential groovy sixties phone was first released during the Eisenhower administration.


From: Michael Bernstein (May 10 2007, at 07:52)

If there were any limitation by category (furniture, architecture, vehicle) that would be a much easier question to answer.

As it is, one of the few icons I can think of to represent the 20th century that don't originate in the middle of it is Mickey Mouse. It's a small bonus that his iconic status has diminished in the 21st.

My second choice is another icon that spans most of the 20th: the hammer and sickle.


From: Ben (May 10 2007, at 09:24)

The von Neumann architecture, which is the basic design of all the microprocessors embedded into just about everything which runs off electricity?


From: Mark Szpakowski (May 10 2007, at 09:41)

The WWW, as I think one person has already mentioned. The basics of the web (simple protocols, extensibility, robustness) feel a bit like basic biochemical, biological, and biosocial building blocks with self-assembly juice.


From: Geof (May 10 2007, at 10:59)

I was thinking of the incandescent light bulb as a design that represents the period, even if it wasn't invented during it. It led and represented the change to electrification, which spread thorughout the century. Light sockets were used as early electrical outlets. The symbol of the light bulb has come to represent ideas, innovation, and intelligence. Now in the early 21st century it is beginning to be phased out (even banned) in favor of compact fluorescents.

Other possibilities along the same lines are the fluorescent tube (though largely absent in the first half of the century), power transmission lines and pylons, the hydro dam (Hoover, Aswan, Three Gorges) - though these last are less designs than devices. Another strong contender is the pumpjack or the oil derrick, which has greater significance but is oddly less used as a symbol.

While these all make sense from a technological and industrial perspective, they lack the cultural resonance of some of the other suggestions. Though the diversity of culture makes such a design harder to claim as universal. The suggestion of the swastika is excellent, even with its limited cultural relevance; it also suggests the hammer and sickle and the stars and stripes.


From: Geof (May 10 2007, at 11:27)

Oh my. I forgot the the film reel. Maybe that's why Tim thinks it's obvious :)


From: paul (May 10 2007, at 12:32)

I think ubiquity is key, so the WWW (seriously, there are a lot of people whose lives have not yet been touched by that) is out. The Beetle and the lightbulb make some sense, but the former is more likely to be a VW bus or a Land Rover in some parts of the world.

I have to go with the contour Coke bottle, as it has a unique design, it's an inexpensive commodity, available to almost everyone, and has represented America, the West, freedom (of choice/speech/etc.) at various times.


From: Superboreen. (May 10 2007, at 13:02)

I vote for Fender Strat. Design genius.


From: Eric Meyer (May 10 2007, at 13:38)

Given the phrasing of the question, my mind turned to icons. And Mickey Mouse definitely sat atop that heap. There were others, of course, but none that would be so widely recognized. (Though the Nike swoosh is probably in the running, ah HA ha.)

For the most iconic designed thing, I'd go with the automobile.


From: Bill (May 10 2007, at 14:52)

The TV.


From: J (May 10 2007, at 15:00)

The mini. The story I heard is that they sat four adults on dining chairs, drew round them with chalk and said "That's how big it should be".


From: roberthahn (May 10 2007, at 15:07)

The yellow happy face. You know EXACTLY what I mean.


From: DK (May 10 2007, at 21:14)

How about the T-shirt? A global transport mechanism for lesser icons.


From: Graeme Mathieson (May 11 2007, at 08:05)

I'm a bit late to the party, since you've already revealed your choice, but I would have suggested something in a similar vein: -- His Master's Voice.


From: Bob DuCharme (May 11 2007, at 08:36)

Great strat examples, but a Telecaster with humbucking pickups is almost an anti-Telecaster. Keith Richards used one on the Stones 72 tour, but in general, the sound of a Telecaster is the sound of its single coil pickups--think James Burton, Steve Cropper, or Johnny Cash's Luther Perkins.

Bob (early 80's black Schecter Strat)


From: paul (May 11 2007, at 13:05)

Your game, your rules, I realize, but I was thinking of a more universal item, something a lot of people on this planet would have seen/held/owned at one time and that had resonance that the makers might not have imagined. The contour Coke bottle, the Nike swoosh (if emblems/signs are OK), sneakers, the transistor radio, come to mind long before an instrument that requires electricity and, until the Japanese and other offshore makers were added, was quite expensive.

The electric guitar fails my ubiquity test, but then I had different conditions in mind. I was thinking of a universally iconic item, one that existed for as much of the 20th Century as possible. The example you went with wasn't around at all in the first half (Leo Fender's early Broadcaster dates back to 1948 and far from common). And the artists who really made the electric guitar something other than a louder acoustic guitar didn't emerge until the mid-60s.


From: Aristotle Pagaltzis (May 11 2007, at 20:08)

Heh. I wasn’t originally going to chime in, but now that someone else has said it – the first thing I thought of, like Robert Hahn, was the yellow button/sticker smiley. Composed using minimal design devices, ubiquitous, utterly irritating, evidence of bad taste, but with a stroke of genious in its conception – what better summary of 20th century design spirit.

The other thing that comes to mind is Fitzpatrick’s contrast drawing of Korda’s famous Che photograph. It might not count as design to the same extent as other things that have been mentioned, but if it isn’t iconic as any of them, I don’t know what would be.


From: John Cowan (May 11 2007, at 20:53)

Well, if it's *iconic* designs you want, how about the Mac wastebasket icon?


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